Rev. John H. Crawford Jr. — a towering West Side civil rights advocate who mobilized his militant passion for African-American advancement on a variety of fronts, such as a co-founder of the influential West Side Organization and as a volunteer bodyguard for Martin Luther King Jr. when King fought for housing rights in Chicago — died on Feb. 1. He was 80 years old.
Born July 8, 1939 to John Henry and Essie Crawford in Round Pond, Arkansas, he was the oldest of 14 children.
After the family moved to Chicago, Crawford enrolled at Dunbar High School and later joined the U.S. Army. He served as a medic and received honors, according to the obituary provided by his family.
Crawford’s struggles with racism, poverty and underemployment as a young man in Chicago informed his work as a fearless activist and organic leader who believed in bottom-up economic and political power.
In the late 1950s, Crawford went to jail twice, once for a “minor charge” and another time for “breaking into a dry cleaner,” according to William W. Ellis’ 1969 White Ethics and Black Power: The Emergence of the West Side Organization. During this time, Crawford also struggled to hold down a string of jobs — from operating a punch-press to working in a pickle factory.
As a laborer, Crawford “was called ‘boy’ and otherwise patronized and humiliated by his bosses,” Ellis writes. “From the time of his youth he was not able to accept this kind of treatment, and on all of the menial jobs he had before, he either got into fights or … quit.”
In 1964, Crawford, known as “Big John,” took matters into his own hands, banding together with Chester Robinson, William Darden and William Clark to found the West Side Organization — a brotherhood “to assist the unemployed, underemployed and unemployable on the West Side of Chicago,” according to a synopsis of the organization provided during a 1967 Congressional hearing on housing legislation.
In the early 1960s, the area that made up the West Side Organization’s primary service sector included approximately 100,000 residents living between Canal Street, Western Avenue, 16th Street and Lake Street, according to the Congressional Record. Eighty percent of the residents were black, the unemployment rate was more than 25 percent and over a third of all families were on public assistance.
“Yet it is in the midst of such disorganization and despair that the West Side Organization has grown,” according to the synopsis. “One apparent reason is that indigenous leadership and neighborhood program policy formation have been more than launching platforms for rhetoric. Staff, both paid and volunteer, is a growing action-oriented cadre of longtime residents of the West Side.”
Crawford was in charge of WSO’s push to address the many welfare grievances brought against Cook County Department of Public Aid officials, who were “cruel and indifferent to the poor,” according to a website detailing the WSO’s history that is based on a book, articles and Crawford’s own recollection of the organization.
In 2015, Crawford told Austin Weekly News that “he recalled one instance where a single mother with several children was living in a dilapidated West Side shanty that had flooded several feet and had ‘dead rats floating in the water.’
“The woman was receiving welfare but was afraid to leave. Such was the case with many families,” Crawford explained, “because the Illinois Department of Public Aid at the time commonly rescinded financial assistance if a resident left an uninhabitable home without it being investigated by an inspector. In the single mom’s case, an investigation did not occur until days later, but the WSO intervened beforehand and relocated the woman and her children.
“[The Department of Public Aid] was like God at that time,” Crawford said back then. “They got involved whenever they wanted.”
Crawford headed up WSO’s Welfare Union, which within two years had grown to five locals and handled more than a thousand successful welfare grievances. Crawford’s unions would win concessions by staging sit-ins in the offices of caseworkers, supervisors and other public aid officials, according to Ellis.
Crawford’s creed — “Cut us in or cut it out” — was also potent in WSO’s assertive, creative approach to helping land jobs for West Side residents. Between 1964 and 1966, the WSO secured more than 1,000 jobs for West Siders, according to one estimate.
The empowerment came by means both traditional and unconventional. The WSO’s biweekly newspaper, The Torch, provided West Side residents with a source of critical community news and information.
When the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity’s invitation in 1966 to submit a development proposal went nowhere, WSO looked for empowerment through other means and eventually entered an agreement with Shell Oil Company that made the organization the manager of a local gas station, according to Ellis. The WSO split the profits from the business with Shell.
The WSO even operated McDonald’s franchises at one point, according to Marcia Chatelain’s 2020 book Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America.
In 1969, the WSO partnered with the Better Boys Foundation to franchise a McDonald’s “in the interest of both groups,” Chatelain writes. “The team used two franchises to employ teenage men from the West Side, where jobs were difficult to secure four youths, especially those without high school diplomas. The partnership took over an existing franchise, was grossing about $200,000 a year in 1969; sales more than tripled when it was in the hands of the West Side Organization.”
But the WSO’s focus wasn’t limited to employment. When Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference descended on Chicago in the summer of 1966 to fight against housing segregation, they asked the WSO to participate in organizing marches like the one in Marquette Park, where King was pelted with bricks and other objects thrown by whites, according to Ellis. Crawford, a strapping Army veteran who boxed in prison, volunteered to be King’s bodyguard whenever the civil rights leader visited Chicago.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the West Side Organization remained active in the community, but the deaths and departures of original members resulted in a new generation of WSO leaders who were “ill-equipped to carry the torch” and “didn’t share the same commitment as their predecessors,” Crawford told Austin Weekly News in 2015.
Crawford was licensed to minister in the early 1970s, according to his obituary. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, as the WSO fizzled out, Crawford established FAITH, Inc., (For Action In Togetherness Holdfast), a community organization dedicated to helping ex-offenders on the West Side secure state ID cards.
In 2016, Crawford told Austin Weekly News that he was part of a legislative effort to require IDOC to provide ex-offenders with temporary ID cards and other critical resources when they are released.
“If a man has used his hands to cause destruction, to cause a mother to cry, to cause death to the community,” Crawford once said, “those same hands can be constructive to the community.”